Monday, December 1, 2008

An article about fear

Mind Set: Terror can't kill the spirit
30 Nov 2008
Times of India

When I first heard about the terrorist assault on Mumbai I asked myself why anyone would murder innocent people and what could they possibly hope to accomplish.

It then occurred to me that the two questions were related. Terrorists want to frighten people into inaction, scare them into stopping the motion that is their life. That is how they want to change our lives, the life of our cities and even that of a whole country. They want to foment change by destroying hope and the sense of security and instill fear in minds.

Fear is very powerful in a negative way as it is one of the greatest impediments to action. We distance ourselves from those who love us from fear that they might withdraw their love. We resist spiritual change because of our fear of the unknown person we might become. We are all familiar with the term frozen by fear, without realizing that is exactly what happens. This is the antithesis of life, which is dynamic and constantly in motion. It is this dichotomy, this difference between the death of inaction and the constant motion of life that illustrates the spiritual challenges presented by terrorism.

How does one resist the impulse to freeze when faced with horror? How does one stop oneself from hardening one’s heart towards perpetrators of this outrage? And how does one make sure that when we do move, we do not merely join the pack baying for revenge? Perhaps by affirming life rather than awaiting death, by facing our fears rather then freezing, embracing the unknown rather than fleeing from it and being inhabited by hope rather then inhibited by fear.

To affirm life we need to act in a lively way; we need to infuse our lives with joy. Listen to music you haven’t heard before and then share the pieces with someone you love. As the great Sufi poet Rumi said, “Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.”

Let the beauty we love be what we do. Give things away, to friends and strangers. Laugh, a lot. If you can’t find anything funny to laugh about, find a book of humorous stories. Surprise a child by fulfilling a wish so that they believe in the potential of life.

How do we face our fears? By confronting what scares us. A few years ago I was frozen by fear. I was living in a place where we knew that a terrorist attack was likely. I lay awake every night, too afraid to sleep. I walked around all day worried about what might happen. Eventually, there were attacks and they heightened the fear. Eventually, I was sick and tired of being afraid and realized I couldn’t live like that. I might survive but life is more than survival. Then, I realized that I was frightened to die. But I also became aware that I was alive at that moment and would be alive every moment until I died. The acceptance was liberating. I felt free for the first time in years. I was able to move to a more dangerous place and sleep just fine, neither foolishly taking risks nor worrying myself to death.

To stay alive we have to embrace the unknown. The only choice is whether we do it consciously or unconsciously, moving through life with our hearts and eyes open or sleepwalking. Everyday we walk out of our homes not knowing what the day will bring. We can obsess about the possibility of a terror attack or hope to find an exciting book to read. The latter is more likely than the former, so why not expect that? There are many things to worry about but it is important not to confuse worrying with doing. One of my friends advised me to adopt the following principle: ‘we do what we can and then we sleep’.

We never know what is going to happen; we just think we do because we construct predictable lives. That is comforting but stultifying. We often worry about an unknown threat but we rarely keep a look out for unexpected ecstasy. Every day we miss out on opportunities to be pleasantly surprised because we expect the worst. Expect the wonderful; it is more likely than the horrible.

But how can people be inhabited by hope when faced with the death of innocent people left bleeding by callous acts of violence? Hope is a choice, a way of seeing the world, a conscious decision made in one’s heart. It is based on experience. If a child is loved and cared for, he or she will be a hopeful person even if bad things happen. So it is with adults. To live without hope is crippling. Without hope we do the same thing everyday as if habits were rituals to fend off demons of fear. We stop growing, becoming rigid and intolerant. It is what terrorists hope we will become — like them, denying life and embracing death.

Is this a simplistic response to a complicated situation? No, but we need to be careful not to equate simple with easy. It takes great strength of will to overcome fear and remain hopeful in the face of real threats. It is much easier to scare millions of people than to inspire them. It is easy to commit to a fundamentalist view that absolves one of responsibility to think or make well-judged decisions. It takes great courage to continually challenge one’s beliefs to grow beyond them. It takes great strength to resist the calls to match violence with violence. It is these acts of courage that terrorists want to scare us away from. They literally want to scare us to death.

(The author is a Canadian therapist)

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